What it takes to train for WorldSkills

“WorldSkills is a totally different ballgame – a total other level”

Muhammad Afzal sits behind the wheel of a late-model silver Ford Focus, inching it into toward a lift in the auto body repair shop at NAIT’s Patricia Campus. Its front right fender is crumpled, the front bumper ready to fall off, and part of the undercarriage scrapes along the concrete floor. For Afzal, however, it’s his ride of choice to a once in-a-lifetime experience.

The 21-year-old Auto Body Technician apprentice is training for WorldSkills 2019, coached by instructor Nathan Badry (class of ’09). The pair will head to the event, often billed as “the Olympics of the trades,” in Kazan, Russia for Aug. 22 to 27. Until then, they’ll spend about three days a week in this shop, six to eight hours each time, working on techniques and best practices.

Other than the fact that they’ll be using the same kind of lift and a similar model of Ford, they have no idea what to expect the day of the competition, when Afzal’s every move will be scrutinized by three international judges.

He’s used to the pressure of competing; to get to this point, he medalled at both provincial and national competitions. But he’s not taking anything for granted.

“WorldSkills, I’ve heard, is a totally different ballgame, a total other level,” says Afzal. "It's exciting. I'm just hoping for the best."

Here, we take a look at an average day in preparation for an extraordinary undertaking, and the skills that will bring him to the world stage as Canada’s best young auto body apprentice.

muhammad afzal, worldskills training

When not preparing to compete for the title of world's best auto body repair apprentice, Afzal works at Modern Auto Body, an Edmonton shop with a focus on high-end brands including Range Rover. Jaguar, Porsche, Mercedes and more. In fact, he and his coach, Badry, met there in 2015, when Afzal apprenticed under the now 31-year-old NAIT instructor and former Modern Auto Body journeyman.

Training for the event is, in a way, an extension of continuing to hone the skills he uses every day. "Everything I'm doing here is related to my job," says Afzal.

muhammad afzal, worldskills training

Training involves repeating basic skills of the trade to improve Afzal's form and efficiency. Those can include racking a car properly and safely welding, repairing non-metal parts of the car and straightening the frame. With respect to the latter, judges measure the results with exacting precision.

"We have to be within three millimetres [of specifications]," says Afzal. "We have to be pretty bang on." 

muhammad afzal, worldskills training

"Not every person can say they've represented Canada," says Afzal. "I'm one of the best people for my age [in the trade] in the country right now. I've built a name for myself in the industry."

"I've built a name for myself in the industry."

muhammad afzal, worldskills training

Afzal's mastery of welding must include a variety of materials, including metals and plastics, and welds must be done in a way that does not compromise the performance of a car body in the event of another crash. "You're putting other people's lives at risk if you don't do something properly," says Afzal.

muhammad afzal, worldskills training

During a competition that will last several days, "Every little piece will be judged," says Badry. "It's down to the smallest component." That includes not just the quality of the repair, but cleanliness, organization and even use of protective equipment and safety.

"Every little piece will be judged. It's down to the smallest component."

The competition's specific task is not revealed until the day before it begins.

muhammad afzal, worldskills training

"It's interesting to watch his growth," says Badry. "Being able to instill my knowledge in the industry and here at NAIT has been fantastic."

No matter how the event plays out, he adds, "It's for Mo to better himself as a technician."

muhammad afzal, worldskills training

Afzal has been passionate about vehicles since a young age, he says. The trade continues to feed his fascination. "Every day is a different thing," he says. "It's impossible for two accidents to be the same." Every job, perhaps like the competition to come, requires a degree of creativity based on a set of fundamental skills.

"I don't like getting my hands dirty. I know that sounds weird."

(The photo above catches Afzal in a rare state: gloveless. They're not required for safety, but "I don't like getting my hands dirty," he says. "I know that sounds weird.")

muhammad afzal, worldskills training

"I'd love to place on the podium," says Afzal. "But just the experience is important to me."

Until then, he'll focus on the task at hand: master the skills of the trade as he learned them at NAIT and on the job. His strategy is simply to stay confident and focused. “All I can do is train and do my best.”

The NAIT WorldSkills Team

Afzal and his trainer aren’t the only NAIT pros who will be at WorldSkills in Russia. Another seven NAIT instructors and former instructors are part of the Skills Canada contingent who will serve as experts in their fields, overseeing and judging the various competitions.

Many also help to train competitors from other provinces, like Cecile Bukmeier, an auto body instructor (class of ’15) who has been working with the winner of the Skills Canada competition in auto body painting to prepare her for WorldSkills. Bukmeier helped develop a training plan for the competitor, who is from London, Ont., and her coach. She’s travelled to London to work with them and brought them to Edmonton in July to train at NAIT with her.

Alan Dumonceaux (Baking ’05), chair of Baking and Pastry Arts, is working with a competitor from Vancouver to prepare her for WorldSkills. Experts like Dumonceaux and Bukmeier go through extensive training to judge the competitions in their fields (though they don’t judge their own trainees at WorldSkills). They also help develop the test projects for the next WorldSkills competition in Shanghai in 2021.

While it’s a big commitment of time and effort, Dumonceaux says being an expert at WorldSkills is a great way to connect with colleagues from around the world. “You get to meet like-minded people who all want to help young people in our industry.”

Here are the NAIT-affiliated experts who will be working at WorldSkills:

  • Cecile Bukmeier, Car Painting expert
  • Alan Dumonceaux, Baking expert
  • Peter Friesen, Industrial Control, expert (retired NAIT instructor)
  • Bobby Haraba, Heavy Equipment Service, skills competition manager
  • Matthew Lindberg (Plumber ’01), Plumbing and Heating expert
  • Roger Tokay (Bachelor of Business Administration ’16), Industrial Mechanic Millwright expert
  • Neil Wenger (Electronics Engineering Technician ’79), Mechatronics expert

– Marta Gold

Subscribe to receive more great stories every month

Find out more news about NAIT, stories about our alumni and their impact on their communities, and useful how-to content featuring our experts.

Sign up today »